Projets de recherche

‘Unruly’ Spaces: Public Space, Society and Politics in Urban Africa

Principal Investigator : Dr. Stéphanie Perazzone

Projet Ambizione PZ00P1_201869


Short Summary

The Unruly project offers to rethink the notion of urban ‘public’ space from a global South perspective. It hopes to contribute to scholarly works across political science, urban theory and anthropology by producing a comparative visual-ethnography of urban public spaces in Abidjan (Côte d’Ivoire) and Kinshasa (Democratic Republic of Congo). Combining ethnographic tools, participatory mapping and Geographical Information Systems technologies, it unpacks how the tensions and entanglements at work between the (micro-)practices of state governance, the various usages ordinary citizens make of the city, and their – often precarious – urban built environment can generate new, alternative ways of crafting and inhabiting urban spaces in cities (stereo)typically perceived as dangerous, ill-designed or ungoverned. Moving away from these narratives, Unruly thus aims to reverse the gaze on the organization and emergence of these alternative politics of the ‘public’ realm in African cities. Rather than being unruled, the project indeed proposes, these urban spaces are unruly in that they harbor a multiplicity of actors, practices and spatial configurations whose broader conceptual and political effects can defy – or disobey – colonially-inflected and western-centric notions of what, who and where ‘the public’ is. The project in particular places at its core the (discursive, material, social and spatial) practices urban dwellers and street-level bureaucrats deploy on a daily basis and recovers how these might produce a variety of ‘unruly spaces’ from a comparative lens between Abidjan and Kinshasa. It does so via an innovative methodological approach that will both empirically document and visually analyze via a composite mapping exercise, the functions, contours and locales of these ‘unruly’ spaces offering therefore, to understand African politics and societies as the dynamic sites of knowledge production from which we can learn globally.

Résumé abrégé

Le projet Unruly se situe à la croisée des sciences politiques, de l’anthropologie et des études urbaineset se préoccupe des problématiques liées à la privatisation, la gouvernance et l’organisation des espaces ‘publics’ en milieu urbain. Le projet propose de repenser la notion d’espace public si chère aux sciences sociales directement à partir du vécu, des imaginaires et des réalités du quotidien des habitants de Kinshasa (RD Congo) et d’Abidjan (Côte d’Ivoire), deux villes souvent considérées comme étant mal gouvernées, anarchiques et désordonnées et dans lesquelles les espaces urbains sont largement privatisés et placés au cœur de luttes foncières et politiques aigues. Plutôt que de voir ces espaces urbains comme étant simplement désordonnés, nous nous proposons de les comprendre comme étant potentiellement ‘indociles’ (unruly), c’est-à-dire rebelles à nos conceptions occidentales de l’espace ‘public’ qui se définit encore trop souvent en opposition binaire à une « sphère privée » pourtant nébuleuse et mal définie. Est-il possible que des formes d’espaces publics alternatives, des espaces de vie et d’émancipation politique collective, soient en train d’émerger dans les villes (africaines) alors même que les espaces ‘publics’ comme nous les entendons traditionnellement en sciences sociales, y apparaissent de plus en plus raréfiés ? Par le biais d’une ethnographie visuelle et de cartographie participative le projet cherchera à documenter et identifier les acteurs, les pratiques, les enjeux politiques et les configurations spatiales et matérielles qui viennent dénouer, défaire et recréer ces ‘espaces indociles’ à Abidjan et Kinshasa, et dont l’objectif plus large sera de (re)conceptualiser l'idée d’espace public par et pour les pratiques, la pensée et les imaginaires africains.

Project Summary

The public is in crisis.

This phrase expresses a pressing global concern: the shrinking and privatization of urban public space. Although there is no single definition of public space, its politics centres our attention on socio-political issues including democratic practices, spatial justice, sustainable urban planning, state domination, and citizenship. By way of example, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought the consequences of restricting citizens’ access to public space to global consciousness, focusing our attention on the ways in which material public space is intertwined with the ideational crafting of a public (social, political) sphere. This problématique of urban public space is particularly salient in African urban areas, which are [stereo]typically portrayed – mainly via accounts of state and urban fragility – as disorderly and ill-governed, and where violence and insecurity are widely thought to be eroding public space. Yet, African cities feature myriad, but understudied, political dynamics and urban formations whose transformative and emancipatory effects far exceed the key tenets of these discourses. On this basis, Unruly will study two fast-changing African cities –Abidjan (Côte d’Ivoire) and Kinshasa (Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC) – whose political and social lives echo these dynamics by asking the following questions.

  1. How do users of public space in Kinshasa and Abidjan – despite violence and contestation – carve out sites of political expression, collective debate, and inclusion through their quotidian activities?
  2. How can those local acts of appropriation, subversion, and socio-political vitality provide global lessons into both the present dilemmas and possible futures of public space across the world?

Unruly is based on the proposition that the social, political, and urban formations of cities like Abidjan and Kinshasa challenge conventional, and colonially-inflected thinking in two key and interrelated ways. First, these cities are not disorderly or unruled. They are simply ‘unruly’ in that they harbour a variety of actors deploying a large array of (sometimes contradictory) practices, appropriations and usages of urban spaces, that twist our vision of ‘public’ space as being necessarily formally organized against a ‘private’ sphere. Second, and relatedly, those emergent ‘unruly’ spaces come to question our conventional and western-centric conceptualizations of how urban spaces are governed, used, and materially configured.

While ‘public space’ has been a theoretical concern of social scientists and urban planners for decades, there remain surprisingly few in-depth empirical investigations on what, where and who exactly ‘the public’ is in non-western urban societies, and by extension, how these become political sites we can learn from globally. Unruly will address this gap by conducting a comparative visual-ethnography of public spaces in Abidjan and Kinshasa. The project will employ ethnographic interviews, participant observation, photo elicitation, and participatory mapping with ordinary urban dwellers and street-level bureaucrats in selected neighbourhoods in both cities. In doing so, Unruly will contribute to literatures in political science, urban theory and anthropology by focusing on the tension between three key dynamics: everyday state governance, the daily uses local residents make of public space, and the precise contours of urban (physical) environments. In doing so it will develop a theory of the processes through which ‘unruly spaces’ are thus comparatively generated in both cities.

The Unruly project will result in a conceptual and visual comparative analysis of the politics of ‘unruly spaces’ in urban Africa, and generate a diversity of key outputs. Drawing on photographic material and ‘composite maps’ (produced via participant mapping) during fieldwork, the project will provide a unique visual showcasing (on a dedicated website) of the dynamics of unruly spaces. In terms of publications, Unruly will produce a special issue, research monograph, PhD dissertation, a collective ‘visual essay’ and 6 single and co-authored scientific articles. Finally, the project’s core findings exploring the relations between street-level bureaucracy, ordinary citizens and their material urban environments will be further disseminated via workshops, seminars and conferences in both Europe and Africa.

Detailed Research Plan (PDF)